1,654 Missoula families waiting for subsidized housing

Workers put the finishing touches on Sweetgrass Commons last year, the newest rent-controlled facility to open in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

While the cost of housing in Missoula continues to slip beyond the reach of median-income earners, those at the bottom of the wage spectrum have been hit especially hard, with more than 1,600 households now waiting for Section 8 vouchers.

The demand for rental assistance remains high at a time when the federal government is expected to trim back subsidies used to help low-income families, according to Jim McGrath with the Missoula Housing Authority.

“Those are direct subsidies from the federal government, and they’re not making them any more,” said McGrath. “They aren’t growing and in all likelihood, they’ll be contracting.”

McGrath outlined his agency’s efforts to help low-income families find housing on Thursday during the Missoula Organization of Realtors’ release of its annual housing report.

The housing authority offers a variety of programs for low-income households, which make up around 25 percent of the population, according to McGrath. But the demand for assistance currently outweighs the resources.

“The housing authority, for example, administers 774 Section 8 vouchers that are deployed in private rentals around the community so they don’t have to struggle to pay rent in the private market,” McGrath said. “It remains high and is pretty much twice what it was pre-recession.”

The Section 8 vouchers subsidize rent to private landlords to make market-rate housing affordable to low-income families. More than 1,650 households were on the waiting list last year – up from 953 in 2007.

Since 2011, more than 1,500 families have been on the list each year.

“It’s not really dipping downward,” McGrath said. “There’s a long way to go before we see much progress in that.”

The housing authority also provides permanent housing vouchers for disabled homeless families, though that program took a cut of more than 30 percent last spring. It offers other programs as well, though they too may be in jeopardy at the federal level.

“On the one hand, the housing authority was fortunate to be able to obtain up to 48 new subsidies for some of our properties,” McGrath said. “But at the same time last year, we also had a substantial cut in some of our other rental assistance programs.”

Under the direction of Mayor John Engen, the city formed a new Office of Housing and Community Development last year to help write a housing policy that addresses the city’s housing needs.

While that’s a step in the right direction, McGrath said, the community must look for other solutions to resolve the problem, especially as it affects low-income earners, the disabled and the homeless.

Among the solutions, McGrath points to the Midtown Apartments on Third Street. The development received funding from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and, in exchange, the owners set aside a portion of the units to qualified low-income earners.

“They agreed to set aside 10 percent of their units – which is six units – for five years and restrict the rent and the occupancy to people who were income eligible at a very low income,” McGrath said. “That’s the kind of innovative step we’re going to need to see in the community as federal resources go away.”

While the number of affordable housing units built in Missoula County hit zero last year, it has averaged around 30 each year since 2007. Since that time, 331 affordable units have been built and several more are expected to come online this year.

That includes 27 rent-restricted units at Sweetgrass Commons and another six units under development by the housing authority.

And while the number of “literally homeless” decreased in 2016, McGrath said, it could rebound this year, as Missoula lost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in resources to serve the homeless.

“The number of homeless children rose significantly last year, from 412 to 601,” McGrath said. “That’s definitely something of concern.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com